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When Stacks Trump Cards: An End-Game ICM Spot

Dan Goepel


  • Sometimes in tournament poker, chip stacks -- rather than the cards -- dictate play, especially at the final table.

  • A hand from a recent MSPT event shows how pay jumps and ICM considerations should affect final table decisions.

Covering live poker tournaments for a living affords me the opportunity to see countless thousands of hands played out, many of which offer interesting and potentially valuable insights into how players — both amateurs and professionals — play the game. In this ongoing series, I’ll highlight hands I’ve seen at the tournaments I’ve covered and see if we can glean anything useful from them.

The Scene

This week, we’re back on the Mid-States Poker Tour, which recently stopped in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for another $1,100 buy-in event at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. The tournament drew 462 runners but just three remain, with the third-place finisher getting $40,198, the runner-up claiming $65,889, and the winner banking $114,117.

Stacks are quite shallow at this point with Level 33 (100,000/200,000/30,000) having just begun. There’s only a little more than 9 million chips in total, so with average stacks under 20 big blinds, things could be quite volatile. Travis Lauson has just taken the chip lead with more than 50 percent of the total in play, while Kenneth Schetter is fighting to survive with just a few big blinds left.

The Action

The short-stacked Schetter looked down at his hand on the button and decided he would wait at least one more hand, mucking and preserving his stack of 775,000. Dan Goepel (pictured above), with a stack of about 2.8 million, called from the small blind, and Lauson checked his option.

The dealer spread a {3-Diamonds}{2-Hearts}{q-Spades} flop and both players checked. More quick checks followed the {9-Spades} turn and the {q-Hearts} river.

Lauson declared that he needed to bet to win but wasn’t going to do so, and Goepel showed {j-Clubs}{5-Spades}. That was enough to best Lauson’s {7-Clubs}{5-Clubs} as neither player had hit anything, and Goepel took the pot with jack-high.

Concept and Analysis

It seems like a nondescript hand, but this one actually illustrates a glaring and important ICM situation. ICM, or the “independent chip model,” uses a player’s stack to determine his or her equity in the tournament. It’s a tool that’s often used to negotiate chops, but it can also be used to adjust the relative value of hands.

The key here is the presence of Schetter, who is crippled down to just a few big blinds. His situation is about as desperate as can be, with the only saving grace being that stacks are so short that his four big-blind shove could actually put a decent dent in an opponent’s stack. Still, in this hand he has folded and is about to be in the big blind, so he has very little control over his tournament destiny at this point.

When Schetter folds, Goepel elects to complete despite holding total garbage. This is a major problem as he has exposed himself to a situation where his stack could potentially be at risk quite easily even in a limped pot.

When Stacks Trump Cards: An End-Game ICM Spot 101
Travis Lauson (left) and Dan Goepel (right)

Remember, there’s a $25,000-plus money jump on the next payout. Plugging the stacks and prize pool into an ICM calculator — they are readily available online — tells us Goepel’s equity in the tournament is about $77,000, considerably more than second-place money. There are very few scenarios in which he should be looking to put his stack at risk against Lauson as busting out now would be akin to torching $35,000. He should be playing extremely tight in this spot, and certainly never coming in with jack-five offsuit.

As for Lauson, he decided to play it very cautiously as well, checking down despite having no showdown value against a player who had shown no strength. Taking some aggressive lines here against an opponent who should be incredibly fearful of busting out would show a nice profit. Of course, one must be concerned about a slow-played monster, but you can cross that bridge when if your opponent leads you to it.

In the end, Lauson and Goepel (shown above playing heads-up) did wait out Schetter who busted in third, with Goepel eventually winning the top prize.

Sometimes in tournament poker, chip stacks — rather than the cards — dictate play. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself staring at some big money jumps, be aware that you’re playing an entirely different game.

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